I was in a few comment threads on the occasion of Pete Seeger’s death. Those have dwindled into pointless repetition – some of it mine – so I am turning the page on that in specific. However, a particular argument kept coming up that I had forgotten about.
Seeger, and Baez, and the whole Folk Song Army didn’t criticise the USSR and China because there would be no point in that. They couldn’t affect that. They focussed on the evils in America because that was where they could make a difference.
My soul screams “Liar!” but let me calm down and try to refute that more dispassionately.
I was in the Folk Song Army, singing at coffeehouses and small wannabee festivals, listening to the records and hanging out with the other folkies. At no time did anyone say “Gosh darn it, I wish we could bring some of this protest and scorn to Czechoslovakia or North Vietnam and try and change their minds! But we’re stuck here trying to improve this pretty good place. I wouldn’t mind the danger or anything of leading a chorus of ‘We Shall Overcome” outside the Lubyanka, but what good would it do? They wouldn’t listen.” I know this is hard to believe, but it's true. No one ever said that, or even hinted it, wink-wink.
No, the tone then was moral equivalence at best. Any criticism of Russia as a police state would be greeted with assurances that we did the same thing right here in America. Any noting of military agression from the Soviet or PRC side would unleash a torrent of examples of how the US was arming right-wing strongmen in Countries A, B, & C. And then, of course, the subject would have successfully been changed, so that the minuses of tolerating a Marcos or a Pinochet would occupy 100% of the field, and all discussion of whether Mao or Breshnev should be shipping AK-47’s to Allende or Ho would be conveniently off the table. Because that’s equivalence. I will note, not for the first time, that the American excuse for arming bad guys against rebels was that we were only responding to the Soviets assisting worse guys there. The USSR said they were only there because we were. In 1970, if you squinted really hard, you could call that mutual finger-pointing unresolvable, I suppose. However, we have new data since then. The Iron Curtain collapsed and stopped sending money to the Shining Paths of the world. Since then, the US has not been particularly involved in the revolutions and counter-revolutions of those places, and they have had whatever good or bad governments they want. Plus, we have lots of inside KGB info that was unavailable before, which substantiates who the aggressors were all along. The Russians certainly felt that they were only responding, and didn’t see themselves as the instigators, but we now know they were frigging paranoid. So you can stop squinting – it was never equivalent after all.
There is a new, improved version of this which asks “Well, is that our standard, just to be better than Russia? Can’t we aspire to be something more than that?” Well of course. Why didn’t you say so in the first place? Like, at Woodstock or something.
At the next level down, was it even true that no good could be done? A gentleman on the board over at The Nation keeps repeating that until Gorbachev, the noble Mikhail, declined to invade breakaway countries from the USSR, no protest would have had the least effect. (I had also forgotten how much leftists needed to give Gorbachev all the credit. Talk to some actual Eastern Europeans about that, please.) How this squares with the other progressive (Gandhian/MLK) Civil Disobedience strategy being adequate to all circumstances he doesn’t say. I can help him out there. Peaceful appeals to morality sometimes work on people who already have morals. But the folkie claim was never that the communist countries were immoral (except when they just had to because we had driven them to it) and thus beyond the appeal of reason, but that we in the West were; particularly the Anglosphere. I mean, they went nuts when Reagan called the USSR the Evil Empire. The modern revision is that Reagan was unwise because such things dangerously escalated tensions. Yes, that was said at the time; but far more energy was put into the complaint that this black-and-white characterisation* of the struggle was stupid and a cause of the problem.Damn conservatives only made it worse. No one, apparently, ever made it worse on the communist side, until Gorbachev finally made it better.
Yet outside of any left-right, Whig-Tory, orange-green divide, it can never be true that a nation is unaffectable in one moment and collapses in the next. It may look that way in the moment, as we become surprised by the unexpected vulnerability of Orthanc. Regimes can be hard but brittle. Notice, if a regime was brittle in 1482 it was most likely brittle in 1481, 1480, and quite far back. The Soviet Union did not suddenly become vulnerable in 1989. We just didn't know it was vulnerable.
Solzhenitsyn, the Samizdata movement, the PlasticPeople, Vaclav Havel (see his The Power of the Powerless ) and thousands of others all believed that some good might come of their protests. The very fact that protest and criticism were put down so quickly suggests that the secret police and other authorities shared their view. Those seemed to live in perpetual fear that it could all go up in flames if a spark hit dry tinder at the right moment. Of course. That is in fact how those governments came to power. They were proved right at the end as well, with the Ceaucescus of the world speaking before wildly cheering crowds one month and executed the next.
Pete Seeger went to Russia in 1968. He acknowledged in retrospect that he should have asked about the Gulag. One cheer for that. Notice it does suggest that he himself thought such a question might have done some good – which some of his defenders don’t acknowledge even now. The difference is not how much effect one can have? but how safe is it, and how much fun is it? I don’t fault him particularly for not speaking out if he had come back and said “Are you kidding? I didn’t dare.” It would raise questions about why you bothered to go in the first place, but reasons for that could vary. As to the fun, well it just is. It’s a hoot to feel persecuted without having any actual danger.
One level deeper still. Even if our protest is pointless, do we still have an obligation to protest, even at a cost? That gets trickier, I think. We do not know ever absolutely know that there is no chance of change. There’s that. Also we admire the courage of those who do speak out, if only to provide a record that someone objected, though they are themselves destroyed. May I point out that if one takes the view that declining a pointless protest is morally defensible, then that courtesy should be extended to those who didn’t speak out against the Holocaust, or against slavery or civil rights abuses when those presented?
Still, a case could be made that we have no moral obligation to protest when there is no possible hope. I grant that. I just don’t think it applies here.
A case can also be made that we each have our assigned place and duties in the world, and an American might legitimately say “It is irrelevant to me what evils they do in other countries. I live here, I have some responsibility for the place, and my energies will be devoted to improving my little corner.” I think this is not only permissable, but wise and elevated. I think this is the real moral principle that was (and still is) being used as a screen; a truth twisted ninety degrees. I believe I can fully enter into this line of thought.
Yet when I am in that line of thought, it seems distasteful and inappropriate to me to operate by sneer and by parody. One doesn’t sing “Little Boxes” in such a mood, nor “Talkin’ Ben Tre.” Most of Seeger’s songs don’t fall into that category, but that was the genre. In fact, it was a technique recommended by CPUSA, to take old hymns and folksongs, redo the words and repurpose them for revolutionary aims. It gives the listener a sense of comfort, softening him up for unfamiliar ideas.
*Reagan did believe they were evil, but not that we were all good. He stressed that it was not so important that we claim God is on our side, but that we be on His. He spoke often of where America had fallen short of her own ideals. That is an important humility.